"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Power Christians–Faith, Wealth, And Salvation

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a former oil executive before he joined the Anglican priesthood. He is an outspoken advocate of ‘Power Christianity’, a movement designed to promote a muscular religious activism among the rich and powerful investment bankers of the City.  In an article in The New Statesman, George Pitcher profiles Welby and some of his powerful adherents and talks about the movement:

During the testosterone-fuelled boom years, Christian faith was about surviving in the City, but since 2008 and the revelation that it was all built on sand, Christians have been saying unequivocally that the gospel is non-negotiable, that working in commerce isn’t about surviving as a Christian but about transforming the way we do business, that Christianity is disruptive of systemic greed and corruption: that, in short, their work serves their faith and not the other way round. They are converting markets, not just people. These are the new Power Christians.

This is an interesting story, at once compelling and weird.  On the one hand, Welby would fit right into America with his embrace of capitalism and his radical reinterpretation of faith (it is not enough for City bankers to follow the Gospel, but to transform business according to its teachings).  On the other, his secular pragmatism would certainly offend adherents to our charismatic, fundamental, revival tent brand of Christianity.  American preachers may rake in millions from televangelism and mega-church tithing, preside over university complexes and foreign missions, and be proto-capitalists; but they need their sanctimony and veneer of spirituality to survive.

In fact, televangelists like Creflo Dollar of Oral Roberts University wouldn’t know what to make of Archbishop Welby. Forget the fact that Dollar and five other smarmy big-time television preachers have recently been called before Congress to testify in an investigation of shady financial dealings.  They are as far removed from the Oxbridge, City, intellectual capitalism espoused by Archbishop Welby as Lady Gaga.  Their stock in trade is not commercial paper, but souls.  They don’t want to reform the capitalism that has been so good to them.  “Give unto Caesar” is their credo; or, in less scriptural language, “Give unto me”. 

New Christians like Paul Szkiler, Chairman of Truestone, one of London’s most prestigious and powerful investment banks, wants more than tithing, or an adherence to ethical principles, but a full-blown exercise of Christian power through capitalism:

The established Church has a poverty mentality. But God is a God of superabundance. And what does the Church say? We haven’t got the budget. It’s the attitude of ‘keep the pastor poor and you keep him humble’.

It’s impossible to create disciples in the Church structure, in pews, dipping in to scripture. Disciples can only be created in markets.

“Disciples can only be created in markets”.  Now that should resonate here in the US; but the only markets Bible-thumping preachers here understand are those that give them a good rate of return. 

It is even harder to imagine the Catholic Church getting behind this idea.  Although it has been the go-to muscular power broker throughout history, it has lost a lot of its mojo, and has resorted to intimidation of the rich and powerful.  Recent popes have given homilies and epistles on the evils of capitalism; but has done nothing to evangelize the bankers holding the vast treasure of the Vatican.  The Church has tried the old Henry VIII trick of threatening excommunication of political leaders like John Kerry who endorsed Freedom of Choice, and has formed an unholy alliance with fundamentalists on ‘family values’, but other than that, they have left capitalism – which has been good to the Church just as it has to Creflo Dollar, Rick Warren, and Jerry Falwell – alone.

One would think that the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church would have a lot more in common.  Despite the contentious divorce a few hundred years ago, a high Anglican service is pretty Catholic:

Welby at his enthronement as archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral

Archbishop Welby at his Investiture

Yet the new Pope Francis, all about poverty and humility, couldn’t be more unlike Archbishop Welby.  Wealth is fine, says Welby, as long as we use it to promote Christian principles.  The Chairman of Truestone was very proud of the fact that he channeled his firms resources into needy countries like Tanzania and Mozambique “to empower them”.  The Catholic Church, despite the wealth of Croesus in its coffers, is publically suspicious of it; and, as is demonstrated every day, is as hidebound and rock-ribbed in its conservatism as ever.  The Church today remains pretty much like it always has been – male, insular and secretive, and mumbo-jumbo.  Besides, it has a lot on its plate these days trying to clean up the priestly buggery mess it has made.

So, is this Anglican muscular Power Christianity really anything new?  To some it sounds like the same self-serving justification of the wealthy still trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle, a mea culpa after the greed and money-lust of the past six years has come to light in all its perversity.  Power Christians disagree, saying that they have learned their lesson; and had they followed the teachings of Christ from the beginning, the whole thing would never have happened.

The bottom line is that religion and capitalism are really two sides of the same coin.  Religions make tons of money from capitalism, and no religious empires, whether the Saddleback Church or the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles could exist in penury, Franciscan humility, and penitential solitude. 

There is a small but growing movement in the United States to remove tax-exempt status from churches.  They are nothing but businesses, say tax reformers; and their services (to save souls) are no different from private medical clinics who want to save bodies. So, in an ironic way, the United States is admitting the incestuous relationship between capitalism (and its protector and promoter, government) and religion – just like the Anglicans across the pond.

I, for one, put no stock in Archbishop Welby’s arguments. The Anglican Church, like most established churches, is fighting for purchase in a newly competitive environment.  Those pesky store-front churches, and backroom preachers are becoming more than just pests; and charismatic and Pentecostal holy rolling is beating respectful hymns, kneeling, and silent prayer by many lengths.  In fact, one of the growth markets for the Anglican Church is Africa, of all places; and Welby has had to pay increasing attention to The Third World.  Turning to the City is all well and good, but he needs to fill the pews, and his Power Christian buddies cannot do that.

2 comments:

  1. Hello, I appreciate your blog. I'd like to add. One of the great strengths of the United States is... we have a very large Christian population - we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values. thanks!!~ Marian West

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  2. Excellent post, i also like to add, His grace is unlimited. His mercy endureth forever Ps 136:1-26. He gives wisdom for the asking. He gives us peace not as the world giveth; John 14:27 but he gives us in abundance. The peace the world gives is short-lived. His peace is in superabundance and is everlasting.

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